Sam Regios passes out papers to her fifth-grade class Monday in their outdoor classroom space on the first day of school at Presumpscot Elementary. This is Regios’ first year of teaching. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Within an hour of the start of the school day Monday, students at Presumpscot Elementary School had spread out to the four corners of the soccer field to eat breakfast and start on classwork.

The gym teacher was setting up a game of corn hole to play outdoors. Nearby, a group of third-graders tucked their masks into an organizer labeled with their names as they started to eat.

And a fifth-grade class sat on tree stumps in a circle to tackle a writing assignment about what they did this summer and how their teacher could help them learn this year.

“It’s a good challenge,” said Sam Regios, the fifth-grade English language arts teacher, reflecting on the start of the school year as her students worked quietly from behind their masks. “I think it challenges the creativity of teachers and school districts. (I’m) accepting it with open arms.”

Students walk into Presumpscot Elementary School on Monday holding a rope to maintain social distancing. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Monday marked the first day of the 2020-21 school year for students in Portland Public Schools. With the coronavirus pandemic, teachers, students and parents are bracing for a year unlike any other.

Portland schools, like many districts around the state, are starting the year in a hybrid model under which most elementary and middle school students will attend in person two days per week. Ninth-graders also have in-person learning two days per week while students in grades 10 through 12 will take classes remotely with access to in-person support.

In addition, about 900 students, 13 percent of the district’s population of 6,750, have enrolled in Remote Academy, the remote-only option.

“I think it was a good day,” Portland Superintendent Xavier Botana said. “It’s great to have kids back in school and to begin to build personal relationships with students and teachers. It was really great to be at that point where we’re having kids back in school. It’s hard to believe it’s been six months since we last had students in classrooms.”

Botana said there were no major challenges to reopening schools Monday. While a handful of positions remain unfilled, Botana said the district is fully staffed with the exception of about 15 part-time jobs, such as lunch aides, 10 educational technicians, five or six English language teachers and a few other positions.

Presumpscot Elementary School Principal Angie Taylor, center left, helps organize the staff as students arrive Monday for their first day in school. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“We had a big turnover here in general and then we had a fairly substantial number of positions we had to back fill because of the transition of people to Remote Academy,” Botana said. “We had a super busy year and the last couple of weeks have been a significant amount of work.”

The district also is refining the app it’s using to remind families to complete daily symptom checks. “It’s getting better,” Botana said. “I was at one school where they said 75 percent of parents completed the symptom check before they sent their kids to school to another place where 50 percent did. It runs the gamut. I think it’s a matter of people getting used to it and knowing they need to do that in the morning.”

At Presumpscot, Principal Angie Taylor said orientation sessions last week helped the staff and students acclimate to the new environment COVID-19 is demanding of schools. Prior to students’ arrival Monday, Taylor put flags in the ground to mark off 3 feet of space – the distance the state says students should keep from each other – so students would know where to stand upon arrival.

The arrival and departure from school are some of the hardest parts of the day as teachers and staff have to keep traffic from getting backed up, and make sure parents and students are social distancing, she said.

Districtwide, Botana said schools are using outdoor classroom space as much as possible and will continue to do so through the fall. “We’ll try to use it as long as the weather holds up and we’re going to look at ways try to be outside even when it’s a little bit chilly, but obviously we won’t be outside in the middle of January,” he said.

At Presumpscot, Taylor said there are two outdoor classrooms per grade level. “It’s been super smooth,” she said of the reopening. “Parents have been great. Kids are wearing their masks. We had very few incidents last week of kids taking their masks off. When one did we just had a conversation with the student and the parents and talked about the importance of a mask and everyone’s safety.”

Student put their masks into slots with their names to keep them clean while they ate breakfast outside on opening day at Presumpscot Elementary School in Portland. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

As parents arrived to drop their children off for the first day, traffic flowed smoothly through the front parking lot. Parents who were walking their children up to the school were asked to say goodbye from the edges of the property, and for the most part people seemed to be adhering.

Sarah and Marc Johnson, who recently moved to Portland from Massachusetts, said they were excited their son Gavin would have the opportunity for some in-person learning.

“We’re excited about the flexibility and the option he can come for those days,” Sarah Johnson said. “I feel like they’re going to wash their hands. They’re going to wear their masks. They’re going to be fine.”

Gavin, a kindergartner, clung to his father’s legs and hid his face when asked whether he wanted to talk about the return to school. His mother said while he was enrolled in kindergarten last year, too, he only completed half the year so she’s hoping he’ll get a good review and gain confidence at Presumpscot.

On remote learning days he’ll go to a program at Camp Ketcha in Scarborough for help with school work and some outdoor playtime.

“We’re excited about the hybrid model and that we found an option where he can go on off days,” Sarah Johnson said. “We both work full time and we can’t do it all. It’s difficult. Every family is going through the same thing.”

Sarah and Marc Johnson arrive at Presumpscot Elementary School on Monday for their son Gavin’s first day of kindergarten. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Camryn Hansen, whose sons are in second and fifth grades, said she has mixed emotions about the return to school but was feeling more confident after arriving Monday morning.

“Everyone seems to be interested in doing the right thing,” she said. “The teachers are really good and everybody’s been planning for this for a long time. We had a lot of 8-hour school board meetings. I think people are asking questions and finding out the answers if they don’t know. I’m feeling as confident as possible.”

As the boys waited for the start of school Monday, wearing cat masks their mother had made them, they said they were excited to be back.

“It feels weird after six months of just not being here,” said Linos Hansen, who is going into fifth grade. He was excited to meet new classmates who didn’t attend the optional orientations last week.

“I’m pretty excited to be back in school again, it having been like six months,” said his brother, Basil Hansen.

At King Middle School, dismissal Monday afternoon seemed free of problems as students filtered out of the building in small groups to school buses and parents gathered on the sidewalk.

Fatouma Houmed has two children at King and two at East End Elementary School, but said she chose to enroll the younger two in Remote Academy because she is worried they won’t be able to social distance and refrain from touching their friends.

As school let out for the day, Houmed called for her daughter Halima to get her attention and the two shared a quick hug. “It was fun,” said Halima, a sixth-grader, who said the day was spent learning students’ names and meeting teachers.

King canceled in-person orientations last week due to staffing concerns after 18 educators requested flexible work arrangements. The school has roughly 50 classroom teachers. Principal Caitlin LeClair said Monday that King was in the process of hiring and acclimating new staff last week, and now is fully prepared to reopen.

“It was truly incredible and probably one of the happiest days I’ve had since March 13,” LeClair said. “I know that sentiment is shared by my staff from visiting every classroom today. It was just a special day.”

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